BCL forces its colonial arrogance relentlessly on the people of Bougainville

S’vana V’toa, Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Colonial arrogance. Colonial arrogance has an ugly face. It stings and stinks. Every year since the 1989 closure of the Panguna Mine, BCL has not relented in forcing its return to re-open the Panguna mine in Central Bougainville. Each time there is talk about its return to Bougainville, it evokes horrific memories of the war people continue to live with to this day. It continues to conjure fears of their experiences of the recent civil war and the possibility of another one, and to their minds, it will be far more devastating than the first one. Everyone feels that, says it, thinks it and believes it!

BCL/CRA/Rio Tinto; the Autonomous Government of Bougainville under President John Momis and his deputy Patrick Nisiria and their Australian Advisors, Mr. Anthony Regan from the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia at the Australian National University and Professor Ciaran O’Farcheallaigh from Griffith University, Adam Smith International lawyers are the faces of such colonial arrogance. They’ve been pushing such toxic arrogance down the throats of the people of Bougainville for over a decade.

Bougainville is a fragile society. Bougainville society and its people are not completely healed from the traumatic experiences of the civil war. The very foundation of the society; its soul, heart and mind and spirit are liken unto a newborn baby, so fragile and delicate that any talk of the reopening of the mine strikes the very core of the society.  Bougainville society’s confidence that has been slowly building up since the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed on the 30th of August 2001 is very unstable and shakier now than ever. This comes as a result of actors such as the Australian advisors to the ABG, who have worked tirelessly on behalf of BCL/CRA/Rio Tinto to reopen the Panguna Mine, in partnership with the Momis-Nisiria government. These actors are arrogant, highly insensitive and disrespectful of the people, who do not wish the re-opening of the mine and or to open new mine/s. Their actions are a repeat of CRA/Rio Tinto’s arrogant invasion of Bougainville in the 1960s!

People have not been given the opportunity to rest and recover well from the much talk-about reopening of the Panguna mine over many years. The insensitivity and lack of respect by the Momis-Nisiria government and their Australian advisors, PNG and Australian governments alike is incredible. People are alarmed by the degree of arrogance and lack of sensitivity and disrespect shown by these actors.

Imported Western laws disempowering to Bougainville people and their traditions.  Importing and using western laws in non-western countries like Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and in the Pacific Island countries in general is a major and very serious issue indeed. In reality the (institutional) practice completely disempowers people, and their traditions. The majority of the population continues to operate on their traditional laws, while a few in the elite class scoop the spoils in the practice. In Bougainville, the people and the government suffer from it and this does not help alleviate the sense of powerlessness people feel, and especially with regards to the draconian Bougainville Mining Act. So, the dependency syndrome on external expertise only increases and seems to be a nasty trend not only in Bougainville but also throughout the Pacific region.  We hope that this trend will not be carried over to our grandchildren’s generation and generations thereafter.

Other areas that contribute to the dismantling of the heart and soul of the people of Bougainville’s fragile confidence are found in some of these areas.

The current draconian Bougainville Mining Law. The vast majority of the people in Bougainville have heard of certain areas of the most draconian Bougainville mining law, especially with regards to the heavy penalties. The law is the work of the consultancy firm, Adam Smith International, a spin-off of the libertarian, free market, advocate Adam Smith Institute, based in London, with the foundation laid by the Australian National University’s State, Society and Governance in Melanesia advisor to Momis – Mr. Anthony Regan, joined by Professor Ciaran O’Farcheallaigh at Griffith University. This situation has only heightened the fear of yet another war, and potentially a major one. In fact, its nature is such that it has good grounds for a major uprising. Rapidly growing are fears, anxieties and concerns all over Bougainville over such an inhumane law. Landowners in areas that are earmarked for mining are wary and are becoming greatly anxious. While a few support the idea, the likes of Philip Miriori and his not so well-educated members of less than ten (men), there is not widespread support among the other two Meekamui factions, the various true Panguna landowners and the people of Bougainville. Now that the people understand the seriousness of the penalties with regards to heavy fines and imprisonment terms, the loss of land and other non-renewable resources, a sense of disempowerment, helplessness and dissolution hang over them.

Landowners’ rights and ‘veto’ power are wool over people’s eyes.

There are serious flaws with regards to the ‘landowners rights and veto power’ in the Bougainville Mining Act.

These rights are significantly compromised by the drafting, which is vague, and applied in a discriminatory fashion. The Act lacks the appropriate checks and balances, which would normally be inherent in a law with such profound applications. The bodies that are meant to advise the Bougainville Executive Council are not independent, and even worse there is no right of judicial review. The Mining Act furthermore restricts the constitutional rights of Bougainvilleans in a way that is highly prejudicial, compromising forever their rights over their land.

Contrary to public statements made by various ABG government leaders and external consultants about the Mining Act, landowners do not have ‘veto’ power over the grant of an exploration license. The exploration license can still be approved despite dissent from landowners. While landowners can control access to their lands under an exploration license by way of a ‘land access and compensation of this agreement; there are minimal requirements about the process for negotiation of this agreement. The Bougainville Government is not involved in this process, which thus diminishes the voice of the landowner/s who may want to oppose access, or put conditions on it. Furthermore, only ‘substantial compliance’ is required regarding whatever agreement is reached, derogation still further on landowners control over their land.

The writing on the wall is made even clearer. When it comes to the mining lease stage, it is the landowners, not the mining company, who is subject to a series of mechanisms which they cannot ‘opt out’ of, and which appear to have only one possible outcome: to obtain at the end the landowners’ consent to authorise mining activities on their land. The Mining Act leaves open the possibility of the Bougainville Executive Council overriding landowner permission via the mechanism of a ‘mutually acceptable decision’.

Ghost lawyers. Bougainville parliamentarians and the people of Bougainville know nothing or little about how and why major changes in the law were made. After it was passed on the 26th of March this year – 2015, major changes have been made and exactly who is responsible is a mystery. The Momis-Nisiria government must have ghost lawyers and invisible parliamentarians, who work in mysterious ways. Tempering with the law is unlawful. This is clearly a legal case the Momis-Nisiria government must answer and explain to the people.

Here are a few examples showing how the law had been tempered with, focusing on some of the heavy penalties. No single landowner has even K1, 000 in his or her name, if these penalties were to be activated, all will simply be jailed and will still be responsible to repay the exorbitant fines imposed.

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A potential second major civil war is very much a frightening prospect for all. The fear of a second civil war seems real and looms large in the minds and hearts of the people, if BCL were to return and resume mining in Panguna or another mining company be granted rights to mine under these impoverishing conditions. In addition, with the growing militancy programs infiltrating the society through the introduction of a number of programs such as the institutionalization of security firms and jails built all around the island, for instance in Buka, and recently in Tinputz on the northeast coast, Wakunai in central Bougainville, Buin in the south of the island, Kereaka-Kunua in the west coast of Bougainville, in this context people do not doubt that BCL or whatever international company that might re-enter Panguna would bring with them their own security firm/s, well trained and armed with sophisticated advanced technologically designed weapons. It only heightens the fears and suspicions the people have about BCL’s return or the handing over of our natural resources to outsiders. A trip to the Aropa airport in Central Bougainville is a shocker! A Guantanamo Bay Prison design is what the Aropa airport and terminal resemble. The terminal and the high metal wall built around it, and wait a minute, you can’t even say goodbye to your friends/relatives inside the terminal because the security guards will not let you in as per the security company’s rules and regulations. The passengers are the only ones that are permitted to get into the terminal. Even more shocking, anyone is not allowed to take pictures inside and outside of the terminal. This is not democracy, is it? Its operation is militant; the air is militant and filled with suspicion! What’s going on here? Whose land is it anyway?

Land conflicts continue to this day. A case in point regards the major cocoa and coconut plantations along the eastern coast of Bougainville.  Major cocoa and coconut plantations, which were once owned by Australian companies, others owned by individuals are now in the hands of Bougainville people and especially with the clans that are directly involved.  Clan ownership of blocks of land in anyone of these major plantations is highly contentious. There are counterclaims of landownership by different clans in any one of these plantations. Dios plantation on the northeast coast is one such example. The fact that this matter is highly contentious, it is like gangrene that is gradually eating its way in into the heart and soul of the society, causing fragmentation in the clans, individual groups and even families. It unfortunately breaks down the confidence in the heart of the society. Sad to say, the previous and the present Momis-Nisiria government have not done anything to right the wrongs.

Climate Change. No one in the Momis-Nisiria government and their Australian advisors are talking about the impact of ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’, how such major changes will affect the environment and people on Bougainville.  The people must be made aware of how global warming and subsequent climate change will affect them, how it will affect local food production, the marine ecosystems, river systems, etc., and how climate change and mining operations will affect the entire population and their delicate natural resources.

Momis’ leadership is scary: it feels and smells authoritative.  He is indeed an interesting character, an ex-Catholic padre, a philosopher and shrewd politician. In wearing his padre hat in 1987, in a letter written to the then managing director of BCL, Paul Quadling, the ex-padre carefully selected his words, with regards to the adverse impact BCL mining operations was having on the people in Panguna and in Bougainville in general. (Letter dated, 4th May 1987, addressed to the managing director, Paul Quadling).

… … The fundamental truth is that BCL has colonized our people, it has taken their land, it has reduced them to passive dependents.  Our people – who to you are just Bougainvilleans or even more anonymously ‘nationals’ are now servants in a land where once they were masters. They keenly feel it and deeply resent it. In your heart you know this to be true, even if it is your company’s policy to keep a low profile, to keep such distance from the people that no one says it to your face.  So few of your staff are nationals except for the unskilled and semi-skilled who do the dirty shiftwork, breathing the dust you make when you make a hole in a mountain. After fifteen years of mining, only a handful of nationals have a rank higher than foreman and that number is not growing but shrinking.  … … …

No solution can undo what has been done. Some things are irrevocable. The BCL mine has forever changed the perceptions, the hopes and fears of the people of Bougainville. You are invaders. You have invaded the soil and the place of our ancestors but above all your mine has invaded our minds. It is like those great alien spaceships, the flying saucers, which so haunt the fearful imagination of Western movie audience. The spaceship, with its unknown and vastly powerful technologies lands in the village terrifying local people, who cannot be sure if the alien wish them ill or good. The people of Bougainville speak of BCL as a monster and you know it. … …

Until next time!


1 Comment

Filed under Human rights, Papua New Guinea

One response to “BCL forces its colonial arrogance relentlessly on the people of Bougainville

  1. Peter Van Wijk

    Fantastic article, well written and a wake up call to people of decency. The international community would be disgusted if they knew such laws were put into place. These new laws that have been put into place are draconian,and are disgraceful. How can the people of Bougainville trust there politicians when they are drafting such laws.

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